The unlucky charms of Jason Campbell
If it weren't for bad luck, the Raiders quarterback would have no luck at all
The first thing to remember about Jason Campbell is that he came to the NFL with a bit of a pedigree. He wasn't discovered on the semi-pro sandlots like Johnny Unitas was way back when, or rescued from a life of bagging groceries like Kurt Warner. He wasn't some unsung sixth-round draft pick like Tom Brady who might've never gotten his lucky shot at the starting quarterback job for Bill Belichick, the greatest coach of his generation, if not for a violent hit that sent Drew Bledsoe, the Pro Bowler starting in front of him, onto the disabled list.
Instead, Campbell is a former No. 1 draft pick, personally scouted and then anointed by Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs as the Washington Redskins' "quarterback of the future" in 2005. Al Davis, another Hall of Famer, believed in Campbell, too.
So how it is that Campbell looks like the unluckiest man in the NFL right now?
And how did his career get to the point that your heart hurts reviewing even the most dispassionate looks at the cruel chain of events that have hit him, because his responses have been exemplary every time?
The idea that the NFL is a brutal business goes without saying. Campbell has admitted that himself. But if you've ever wondered how much physical or mental pain a man might be willing to endure to play in the NFL, Campbell should be the case study.
He's been jerked up, down and all around, highly praised and coldly mistreated. He's been doubted and derided, and yet successful. Some years, he was sacked so often his Washington teammates wondered out loud how he ever got back up -- and yet he did. Campbell had to learn three new offensive systems in his four seasons at Auburn, and he's played for five head coaches in his seven NFL seasons. Football experts rightly asked how anyone could reach his full potential or succeed in a spin cycle like that.
"He has to be a little fried in the brain," former Eagles quarterback and current ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski told USA Today in 2008.
But has Campbell complained? Not ever. Not even when Washington owner Dan Synder stripped then-head coach Jim Zorn of play-calling duties six weeks into the '09 season and handed them to Sherm Lewis, who had been off calling bingo games and delivering Meals on Wheels before the Redskins brought him back to the NFL cold turkey. As The Washington Post dryly reported then, league sources said Lewis "performed poorly" the last time he was in the league, and noted, "He is unfamiliar with the Redskins' offensive terminology, personnel, running game and pass-protection schemes." (Uh ... what else is there?)
All of that was crazy. And yet, what happened to Campbell within a 72-hour span with the Raiders a week and a half ago might be the meanest jolt in Campbell's switchback-filled career.
He had Oakland winging toward a victory over Cleveland and a 4-2 record two Sundays ago when he pulled the ball down and decided to try to run for a first down. In the only interviews he's given since, all to the Bay Area Comcast TV and radio affiliates, Campbell said he felt one tackler hit him in the left leg and then, as he was falling to the turf, Browns linebacker Scott Fujita crashed on top of him.
He heard his right collarbone snap. Then he felt the knifing pain.
When the Raiders' medical staff got to where he lay on the field, Campbell kept pleading with them, "How long? How long? How long will I be out?"
Within 24 hours, he was trundled into surgery. The day after that -- Tuesday, Oct. 18 -- the Raiders swung their startling blockbuster trade for Carson Palmer, who had been sitting out this year after refusing to play for the Cincinnati Bengals. The Raiders made the move just four days after Al Davis died. And they did it though Campbell was Davis' hand-picked quarterback, acquired in a trade last year. Davis told him at the time: "I understand the [bad] situation you were in. Trust me, we'll appreciate you here."
First-year Raiders head coach Hue Jackson coached Palmer at USC, and he pushed for the deal with the Bengals even though Campbell's two-year record as the Raiders' starter was 12-7. That's merely the best run any Raiders quarterback has put together since Rich Gannon took the team to a Super Bowl in the 2002 season.
The exorbitant price the Raiders paid for Palmer -- one first-round draft choice and another pick that could turn into a first-rounder depending on how well Palmer plays -- is as damning for Campbell's future with the team as the unfiltered slights that came flying out of his coaches' mouths. As Campbell sat at home the day the trade was announced, his mind still clouded by post-surgery painkillers, he and his fiancée watched Palmer's hastily-thrown-together introductory press conference on TV and had to listen to this:
"The greatest trade in football," an absolutely giddy Jackson said.
And a few days after that, this from Raiders offensive coordinator Al Saunders, who told a Bay Area radio station that the first day Palmer walked onto the practice field, everyone said, "You know what, this is a real quarterback."
Campbell has seen a variation of this movie before.
Two summers ago, he was looking forward to playing for offensive guru Mike Shanahan when the Redskins hired the two-time Super Bowl winner to replace the woefully miscast Zorn as the Skins' third head coach in four years.
But within a month, Shanahan had traded for six-time Eagles Pro Bowler Donovan McNabb.
Then he gave Campbell, Washington's starter the previous 3½ years, permission to seek a trade while he worked out away from the team. Campbell studied the Redskins' playbook, anyway, and stayed in limbo for nearly four weeks until the NFL draft rolled around and the Raiders called.
"I talked to Al Davis, and he said he wants me there. That means a lot to me," Campbell told The Washington Post.
Campbell has never been mistaken as the second coming of Peyton Manning. He's never been a swaggering, smack-talking, look-at-me quarterback, either. Sometimes, his understated personality has been seen as a weakness, not a strength. His 15-30 career record in Washington wasn't great. Still, he improved his stats every year on bad teams with bad offensive lines and the organizational circus swirling around him. He was five games over .500 with Oakland, and that franchise churned through quarterbacks in the last decade about as often as the Redskins did.
With Davis saying he was so solidly behind him, Campbell seemed to have landed in a place where he'd finally get a chance to see how good he might be. In the season before Shanahan dumped him, he ranked 15th in the NFL in passing efficiency with an 86.4 passer rating -- higher than Palmer, Matt Ryan and Jay Cutler. This year, Campbell led the Raiders to a fourth-quarter comeback over the favored Jets, and topped 320 yards passing against both New England and Buffalo. Oakland was in first place in the AFC West through the first six weeks.
Then Davis died. Campbell's collarbone snapped. And Palmer became this year's McNabb.
Now, instead of getting a contract extension he seemed in line for from Oakland, or perhaps taking the team to its first playoff berth since 2002, Campbell will be a free agent at the end of this season. He'll probably have to start over yet again.
But he still hasn't complained. Not even after the Palmer trade.
"In that moment, it hurt me, a little bit, just because you feel forgotten and you know, you feel like you're not appreciated," Campbell told Comcast's Kate Longworth this week. "But I just use that as motivation. ... I'm a starter in this league. Definitely. I look around the league, you know, I play at a higher level than most guys. ... I'm not a backup."
No. He's the unluckiest man in the NFL. Good quarterback, unselfish teammate and extraordinarily decent man.
He's not the kind of player you forget about.
He's the kind of player you root like hell for to get back up. Again.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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